In the fall of my senior year of high school, I was assigned to read Joan Didion’s 1965 essay “On Morality.” It’d be nice but dishonest to say that I fell in love with her words the moment I read them. In truth, they were confusing and unsettling, but ultimately moved and stuck with me. I could not have said then why I felt any of those things towards Didion’s work. But soon after that first assignment, I sought out essays and articles of hers to read on my own time. PDFs snatched from Google searches gave way to essay collections and books that I bought over time. I’m a senior in college now, and over the four years that have passed, Joan Didion has become one of my favorite writers. Her words have stirred feelings, inspired thoughts, and painted images that have never left my head in ways that have made her one of the most deeply evocative, brutally honest writers that I have ever encountered.
I can best explain why that is in Didion’s own words, with a line from her famous essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”:
“Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.”
In a similar vein, Joan Didion has become one of my favorite writers not only because of her ability to hone in on the unadmitted truths of her time and make sense of them, but also because of her courage in taking the things that we, both as individuals and as a society, have the hardest time acknowledging (hypocrisy, corruption, depravity, grief, etc.) and reflecting them back on to us.
Listed here are some quotes and excerpts from Didion’s prolific body of work that have taught me great lessons and gotten me through tough times. I hope they may do the same for you.
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
- “On Keeping a Notebook” (1966)
I felt both understood and called out reading this essay because it perfectly captured my compulsion to scribble. I’ve never had the patience for writing long, prosaic journal entries like the characters in books I grew up reading. I’ve always scribbled, jotted, and even doodled across pages of unfilled journals. I’ve copied down song lyrics that were stuck in my head and snippets of conversations I’ve overheard in the margins of class notebooks when I should’ve been paying attention to the material. I occasionally go back to skim those lines carelessly blurted and poured onto the pages in all kinds of emotional states and it’s a toss-up on whether they’ll make me cringe, roll my eyes, laugh, tear up, or just quietly wonder. But no matter how I react, I’m always grateful to have some glimpse into who I was and who I was trying to be when I read the notebooks I’ve kept. I realize now that I don’t have to like all the parts of who I’ve been before, or even all the parts of who I am now. But I do have to recognize, accept, and, in some cases, forgive all of who I am and who I’ve been if I want to lead a happy and fulfilling life.
“One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”
- “Goodbye to All That” 1967
In defiance of all rational thought and understanding, and despite all the sources of support reminding you that you’re not alone in whatever you may be feeling or going through at any given moment, the emotions we’re feeling in our teens and twenties can be so intense that they trick us into believing that we’re totally alone. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Your late teens and early twenties encompass a time in which you’re building the foundations of emotional intelligence and common sense that you don’t fully have yet. To quote stand-up comedian Taylor Tomlinson in her Quarter Life Crisis Netflix special, “You don’t have a gut to listen to yet.” And that’s ok. It’s important to mess up and figure things out and feel your emotions as intensely as you need to work through them, but remembering why they might feel so intense can also help in achieving a sense of comfort and balance.
“Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.”
-“On Morality” 1965
Titled “The Insidious Ethic of Conscience” when it was originally published in the American Scholar, this essay conveys an important perspective with a grim tone. At the end of the day, the only moral code we really have to go by is our own. We may draw upon the reasoning and influences of others, but ultimately, we answer to ourselves, and we’re responsible for the convictions we live by at the end of every day. That’s not to say that larger, shared senses of what’s ethical or moral don’t exist, and I don’t think Didion tells her readers to throw out morality altogether. I think she’s trying to draw our attention to the complex factors that motivate people to act, and in doing so, trying to point out that not everything can be justified by establishing a moral high ground. Sometimes the things we say, do, want, need, strive for, or fight for have little to do with morality even if that’s what we want to believe. While it’s important to lead a life of integrity in which you stand by your convictions and beliefs, it’s also important to be aware of why we actually do the things we do without attempting to justify or rationalize our actions with a misplaced sense of moral superiority.
“Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.”
- “On Self-Respect”
There’s nothing sugar-coated in this one. Didion packs a brutally honest, insightful punch, going on to describe people with self-respect as those who have a particular kind of toughness and moral nerve that “is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.” While it’s important to consistently practice self-love, you don’t have to necessarily like yourself at every moment in order to have self-respect. You do have to have the courage to face your mistakes and own up to them along with the courage to make things right and do your best, however imperfect your best may be.
“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package,” she said. “I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment.”
- Commencement Address at the University of California Riverside, 1975
This one pretty much speaks for itself. If there’s anything I can add, it’s the reminder to be present and accept imperfection in every aspect and phase of your life, especially when you’re not sure about who you are or where you’re going.
Whether you like what you read here or not, I encourage you to check out some of Joan Didion’s work. My personal favorites include her essay collections “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” as well as her nonfiction account on grief called “The Year of Magical Thinking.” I’d also highly recommend “The Center Will Not Hold,” a Netflix documentary about Didion’s life and career.